What is "strict liability"?

The law of “strict liability” states that someone who does certain things is liable if anyone else gets hurt by them, no matter how careful the first person was being. Strict liability applies mostly to actions and products that cannot be made safe. These include ultrahazardous activities like keeping wild animals and using explosives, as well as some consumer product liability cases that involve making defective products.

In most personal injury cases, the injured person must prove that his injury was caused by the defendant’s carelessness, or negligence. In a strict liability case, however, the injured person only has to prove that the hazardous activity or defect in the product caused his injury. In these cases, the defendant is liable for the injury even if she carried out the hazardous activity or made the product as carefully as possible.

Animals

Owners of wild and dangerous animals are responsible under the strict liability rule if the animal harms someone. In most states, a “wild” animal is one that is not typically domesticated. The category of “wild” animals includes animals that are not domesticated but are bred for their meat, fur, or skin, such as alligators or ostriches.

Those who own domesticated animals may still face strict liability if the animal is known to be more dangerous than others of its kind and it harms someone. For instance, many states have laws that require strict liability for dog owners whose dog bites someone, if the dog is known to bite people. These laws are sometimes known as the “one free bite” rule: the first bite is not subject to strict liability, but any bites after that are.

Ultrahazardous Activities

Ultrahazardous activities, or “abnormally dangerous activities,” are activities that cannot be made safe, no matter how much care is used. Common types of ultrahazardous activities include using dynamite or other explosives, using or transporting certain volatile chemicals, and keeping wild animals, described above. Even if the person or company doing an ultrahazardous activity takes every possible precaution, he may still be liable if the activity harms someone.

Consumer Product Liability

While some consumer product liability cases are handled under the negligence rule, others are analyzed using strict liability. A manufacturer or seller of a product will be liable under strict liability if the product harms someone if all of the following apply:

  • The product has a defect;
  • The defect caused the plaintiff’s injury, and
  • The defect makes the product dangerous.

The defect may be any kind of defect. It may be a manufacturing defect, due to bad materials or shoddy worksmanship. It may be a defect in the design of the product, such as slippery hand grips or a lack of protective guards over sharp edges. Or it may be a warnings defect, if the product has dangerous hidden qualities that the user cannot know about until they injure him.

In a strict liability product case, the injured person does not have to prove whether the manufacturer, the seller, or anyone involved in the design, creation, or marketing of the product failed to use reasonable care. Instead, the injured person must only show that the defect makes the product dangerous and actually caused his injury.

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